When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people. — Genesis 49:33
As we remember the anniversary of Fellowship Founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s passing this month, we offer you a selection of his devotional thoughts on leaving a legacy of faith. Learn how you can honor Rabbi Eckstein’s lifework and legacy through our Wings of Eagles ministry.
Our verse today is from the Torah reading that begins with the death of Jacob and ends with the death of Joseph. So it’s quite puzzling as to why this selection is titled “Vayechi,” which means “and he lived.” Why give such a name to a section dealing primarily with the death of two great Jewish figures?
Even more mysterious is this cryptic quote from the Talmud, Judaism’s oral tradition: “Our father Jacob never died.” Surely this phrase can’t be literal as it clearly says in the Bible that Jacob died: “he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.” So which is it; did he or didn’t he pass on?
Jewish tradition explains that those who are called righteous are still called “living,” even after they have died, whereas the living wicked are already called “deceased.” Just because someone is physically alive doesn’t mean that they are really living. Having a pulse does not equal life. Which leads us to the question: What is life really about? Life is growing and changing. It is giving and sharing. It is learning and teaching. When a person wastes away his or her days doing nothing with meaning or content, that person is merely existing.
This is why the righteous live on even after they have left us. Their lives continue to serve as examples that guide and teach us. Their good deeds continue to bear fruit long after they have passed away. They leave us a legacy that far outlives their own lives. In this way they continue to change the world and contribute to society. They live on in the people who continue to build upon what they began.
Interestingly, in Genesis 25:7, Jacob is called “tam.” This Hebrew word has been translated in many ways as meaning “quiet,” “content,” or “simple.” Judaism understands the word to mean “whole” or “complete,” as in “completely righteous.” When you take the word tam and reverse it, you get the Hebrew word “met,”’ which means “dead.” Jacob is described as the opposite of dead, the antithesis of death. He was righteous and complete; a beacon of light and full of life. His light shines forever, and in this way, he never died.
While we tend to measure life in terms of quantity, we ought to make the true measure according to quality. Some short lives reverberate for generations while other people’s long lives are as if they never lived. As we go through the days and years that God has given us, let’s make them count forever. Let us leave behind a meaningful legacy to generations to come and sow seeds that will bear beautiful fruit long after we ourselves are gone.
You can honor the lifework and legacy of Fellowship Founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein by participating in the Rabbi Eckstein Memorial Freedom Flight, bringing Jews from Ukraine and countries of distress home to Israel.